Why would Vladimir Putin back down? Photographer: Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images
Why would Vladimir Putin back down? Photographer: Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, there has been no shortage of shameful behavior: the appalling disrespect shown to the remains of victims; the games played to delay an independent inspection of the crash; the crude mendacity of the Kremlin’s efforts to divert responsibility.

And then there has been the response -- more accurately, the lack thereof -- of European leaders. After meeting this week to discuss further sanctions on Russia for President Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine, European Union foreign ministers returned to one of their favorite pastimes: squabbling over which country has been most feckless in its failure to act.

Financial War

Is it the French, who are still on track to deliver two Mistral class amphibious landing ships to the Russian military? The British, who have yet to act against Putin-friendly oligarchs in London and, it appears, have failed to carry out their loudly announced arms embargo of Russia? What about the Italians, who continue to press for construction of a transparently political project devised by Putin to end Ukraine’s gas transit business? Don’t forget German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose tough language about standing up to Russia's aggression has yet to be matched with meaningful action.

Not since the lead-up to the 2003 war in Iraq has the EU been so divided by a geopolitical issue. This time, however, there is no excuse -- no intelligence to dispute, no Middle Eastern war to question. At issue in Ukraine is a direct threat to European security. The deaths of more than 200 EU civilians as they flew over Ukraine have triggered the first call for discussion of so-called tier-three economic sanctions against Russia.

There is a legitimate reason for all this reluctance: No one knows how effective tougher sanctions would be. The mere threat of them has done nothing to stop the fighting in eastern Ukraine, which continues unabated -- as does the rise in Putin's personal approval rating (it hit a six-year high of 83 percent last week). With Russians in the grip of a nationalist fervor, why would Putin back down? And if he won’t, why put Europe’s businesses at risk?

These are the wrong questions to ask. It's true that sanctions alone may not persuade Putin to end his support of separatists in Ukraine. But there's a chance they might -- and even if they don't, they're still worthwhile.

One thing sanctions can do -- and there is some evidence they are hurting Russia’s economy already -- is deter future behavior. If Putin has unleashed a nationalist hunger to restore Russian dominance that he has lost either the will or the ability to control, all the more reason to cut off the arms and money that fuel further adventures, in Ukraine or elsewhere.

There are other reasons for sanctions, large and small: Cooperation and agreement on sanctions would help keep the EU united on other equally important issues, such as economic aid to Ukraine and ways to help the young presidency of Petro Poroshenko. Sanctions would show Europe is willing to stand up for the principles of sovereignty and democracy, which it claims to revere. And they would deprive Putin of the ability to play the U.S. and the EU off each other.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that sanctions are in Europe's long-term economic interest. The goal is not merely to deter Russia; it is to ensure the stability and vitality of the European economy. If Russia insists on using Europe's dependence on its energy to endanger the continent's security, then Europe needs to take steps to protect itself.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.